Dir. Bruce Robinson
(2011, R, 120 min)
There’s a scene in The Rum Diary in which Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) plays a game of chicken with his love interest, Chenault (Amber Heard); he steps on the gas in his borrowed convertible until one of them screams, but without warning they approach a dead end and must screech to a halt just before sailing off the edge of a dock. The film is a bit like that. It propels heedlessly forward, with no clear direction or guiding purpose, and then all of a sudden it hits the brake. “Where is this going?” we wonder. Nowhere, is the answer – exactly where it started.
Its protagonist has no rooting value. Paul is a “journalist” who in 1960 takes a job at a Puerto Rico newspaper on its last legs. I put the word in quotes because there are few scenes at the newspaper office and fewer scenes of journalism. Most of his time is spent having misadventures, half of them involving alcohol, the other half involving hangovers. He’s also a struggling novelist who laments his lack of creative voice; he occasionally finds one for brief periods of typing and pretentious voice-overs, but then it’s back to drinking. The film makes it hard to care about Paul because Paul doesn’t care about anything for more than a few minutes at a time. There are a few disingenuous moments of outrage over the treatment of Puerto Ricans, but little follow-through. The newspaper should cover such issues of inequality, Paul argues, but his editor (Richard Jenkins) rejects the pitch with a cynical speech that represents the best dialogue in the film. Oh well, back to drinking.
Bruce Robinson wrote and directed the film, based on the novel by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who was known for his heavy use of drugs and alcohol. The Rum Diary is certainly true to that, but where’s the story here? The main plot is about a corrupt developer (Aaron Eckhart) and an illegal plot to build new hotels, but Paul’s interest is not in justice; he only wants to have sex with Chenault, the developer’s fiancee. He claims at one point to be in love with her, but I’m not buying that either. His commitment to her, as to his job and social justice, is fleeting at best. None of these storylines pay off; the film culminates in a non-ending that is all the more frustrating because it’s preceded by a non-movie.
Set in Puerto Rico, it’s only tangentially interested in Puerto Ricans, except as objects of poverty-sympathy and to provide exotic background color. My mother was a child in Puerto Rico at the time the film takes place. She’d certainly recognize, as I did, the distinctive chirping of coquis. She might have memories of cockfights. Probably not of hermaphroditic witch doctors, though. And I’ll have to ask her about the alcoholic gringos.